Cattle Congress


ROY had the Senator out between the two largest cattle barns giving him a shampoo. The Holstein bull stood meekly while Roy worked the lather over his black and white head and massive neck. It was the last day of the show, and there would probably be a record crowd, so the Senator had to look his most elegant. Roy’s fingers caressed him pridefully as he worked. The judging had already been done, and the Senator had got his blue ribbon as Roy had known from his calf days that he would. ‘That calf,’ he had told Audrey, ‘is going to go to the Cattle Congress some day and win.’ And because he had been so sure about it Roy had called him the Senator, a good and appropriate name for one destined to go to Congress.

Audrey sat on a box near-by to watch the grooming of the Senator. She was trying to hush the fretting of Graham, her two-year-old son, whom she held on her lap. He looked very little and scrawny crying there, pushing his teardaubed face against his mother’s abundance, just as Roy looked little and scrawny as he puttered around the black and white hulk of the Senator. Audrey liked to watch the big bull get his head washed. She laughed childishly at the notion of shampooing a bull all over that way. It all seemed rather silly to her anyhow — she could n’t see why Roy was so crazy to bring the Senator to the Cattle Congress or why he was any better for having won a blue ribbon. He was just the same gentle black and white bull that he had been before. But she enjoyed the crowds in the buildings, she liked stopping at a lunch counter to eat a hot dog and drink some coffee or some pop, giving Graham enough of them to keep him quiet.

The Cattle Congress was n’t as much fun as the Fair, because here you had to go clear over to Electric Park to get to the Ferris wheel and the merry-go-round and the free acts, and Roy always had something to do for the Senator — he never had time to take her over. Still, it was nice to get away from the farm and be mingling with a lot of people for a change. If only she did n’t have to drag Graham along with her all the time. He was a sickly child, and his mother, who had never had a pain in all her eighteen years, looked at him sometimes with the amazed impatience of the perpetually healthy for the perpetually ailing. It did n’t really seem as if Graham could be her child — he was all Roy’s.

Roy was scrawny, too, and half sick most of the time. Night after night he could n’t sleep with the asthma. Audrey had to get up and set fire to the powder the doctor had given him to inhale as it burned before he could breathe at all. He was gasping now as he leaned over to polish the Senator’s hoofs. Being around the barns, inhaling the dust and the smell of the animals, made his asthma worse. He coughed and coughed, and his Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat and his pale eyes streamed tears.

Graham whined and clawed at himself. He had eczema, and his mother often had to hold his hands to keep him from just about tearing himself to pieces. The father coughed and the son whimpered. The bull looked on placidly; the woman sat, solidly comfortable, and looked on too, with something of the same detached calm the bull exhibited. The cough and the whimper were so familiar she scarcely heard them. Her beige silk dress stretched tight around her big firm body. As she squatted on the low box her skirt pulled up, showing the strong, rayon-clad calves of her legs. An off-the-face felt hat made her broad face look broader and flatter, but it was a pleasant face, high-colored, with clear, hazel eyes that seemed pushed shut at their outer comers by the prominence of the cheekbones. It was a strong face, strong with the dumb strength of a fine animal. She had curled the ends of her long bob before she left home, but now in the heat of the September afternoon the curl had all come out and the ends straggled from under the hat and clung damply to the brown column of her neck.

The Senator’s toilet was finished now, and Roy was leading him back to his stall. Audrey got up and followed, Graham at her heels, still whimpering. The heat made him very uncomfortable. His mother walked along behind the Senator. She had a magnificently straight back, and she bore her heavy bosom high with an ease that was almost a substitute for grace. She was a procession in herself, walking with the upper part of her body motionless as though she carried a balanced burden on her head, stepping off long steps that began with an easy swing from her hips. The beige silk of her dress stretched and strained, inadequate concealment for the rhythmical flesh beneath it.

In the barn Roy secured the Senator and then sat down on a box inside his stall to wait until time for the big parade of the winners in the hippodrome. The Senator was perfection itself in his grooming, and Roy’s eye ran over him lovingly — the silky coat, the polished hoofs and tasseled tail, the gleaming horns belying his placid face with their arrogant flare.

Audrey wandered off once more down the centre alley. ‘Here, you keep Gray awhile,’ she said as she left. Audrey never got tired of looking at the animals. They seemed to fascinate her, and the bigger they were the more fascinated she was. But Roy was too tired to go with her on another tour. He sat still and lifted Graham to his lap. The little boy seemed all eyes and sores — it was funny Audrey could n’t get that eczema cleaned up. Roy, who had just been shampooing the Senator, observing the clean pink of his skin through the white hair of his coat, did not notice the film of dust on the scalp of the little boy he held in his lap. It showed very plainly where the lank, thin hair parted. He patted the child absent-mindedly and his eyes followed the straight back of Audrey as she disappeared down the long alley between the two rows of cattle, stopping now and again to look once more at the occupant of a stall. Roy did n’t exactly like to have her wandering around alone. Some of the men that came in with the exhibits of the big breeders who showed a whole herd did n’t look any too good to Roy. But he had n’t noticed Audrey paying any attention to them.

Audrey had no judgment about cattle, her husband had told her impatiently. He had been cross with her because she had said right out that she thought the Holstein in the corner stall should have had the prize rather than the Senator. She thought that because the Holstein was bigger than the Senator. He was easily the biggest bull Roy had ever seen, and had a son there beside him that was going to be bigger than he was. But that did n’t make them better necessarily. Audrey just thought that the biggest was naturally the best. She liked size. She could n’t see anything fine about the Jersey exhibit. ‘My, but he looks mean!’ she exclaimed, watching the pure-bred Jersey bull toss his horns and roll his red eyes. The Jersey was fastened, Roy noted, with a ring through his nose in addition to a double rope stretched to both sides of the stall. He probably was as ornery as he looked. But he was a beauty. Roy wished he could have one of the little calves — one had been born there in the stall just last night. ‘Why, it ain’t much bigger’n a kitten!’ Audrey exclaimed contemptuously, looking at the little fawnlike creature.


Glad to be rid of Graham for a while, Audrey left the cattle barn. Outside they were hitching twelve teams of Belgians to a wagon. She stood and watched as each pair in its fancy harness was added to the equipage. She cheered with the rest of the crowd when the glittering string moved off toward the hippodrome. She liked the horses almost better than she did the cattle, and she thought she would walk over and go through the exhibit of Belgians again. Roy had told her that the finest Belgian horses in all the world were right here at the Cattle Congress in Waterloo. The two of them had spent hours in the barns looking at the rows of champions and exchampions and would-be champions, Roy in wistful longing, Audrey with a kind of fascination. She loved them for their size, for the declaration of power that was in their broad backs and heavy necks and treelike legs.

The names posted over the stalls worried her. She could not pronounce some of them, and most of them made no sense to her — like calling their own bull the Senator. Roy had explained over and over to her why that was appropriate, but she still thought it was silly. She did n’t share Roy’s longing to possess one of the splendid Belgians. Ordinary horses did just as well for farm work, as far as she could see. Paying fifteen hundred dollars for one of these would be about as sensible as buying an elephant from the circus just to have the fun of seeing its strength make trifles of heavy pieces of work. She had always resented the scraping and stinting they’d had to do to get the calf that had turned into the Senator. It was not that she did n’t like the Senator, was n’t proud of him. But her pride was of a different kind from Roy’s. It had nothing to do with the Senator’s being a champion and a wearer of a blue ribbon. Rather it was a kind of sympathy with the beast himself, with his bigness, his health, the male potency of him. She understood those qualities and the serene superiority they gave their possessor. Audrey and the Senator shared a certain competence for life; it seemed almost that they shared also a certain contempt for those who lacked it.

She left the Belgians slowly, reluctant to go back to the fussy Graham. Near by was a small tent with a sign reading, ‘See the World’s Largest Horse, 10ȼ.’ She fumbled in her purse. She wanted to see the big horse, and besides she felt that she owed herself some little treat. She had n’t seen a show of any kind except the one in the hippodrome, and that had been rather dull. She had some fun coming to her, she decided, as she fished a dime from her imitation leather purse and entered the tent. Inside on a little platform stood the largest horse in the world. There was just room for a small circle of people around him. A few men were there, silent as they gazed up at the great beast that stood in quiet and withdrawn dignity looking over their heads. The men seemed very small as they stood under the arch of the stallion’s neck. They said nothing at all except for a little murmur now and again as the horse turned his head or shifted his weight. There was a young man in charge of the horse, but he was n’t paying much attention to him. He took Audrey’s dime absent-mindedly, for he was busy talking to two young girls who seemed to find the largest horse in the world very amusing. They giggled and chattered and asked the young man silly questions.

Audrey looked at them, vaguely resentful. They were young and they were having a good time, running around together and picking up dates with the men who hung around the Cattle Congress. Their flimsy smartness and their pert ways made her feel old and shabby, although they could n’t have been much younger than Audrey herself. Audrey had often wished that she had n’t got married so young. Other girls her age were still running around having a good time, but Audrey, who had raised Cain at home until her family finally let her quit high school and marry Roy on the theory that the sooner she was married the less grief they were likely to have, was a married woman with a baby, a sickly baby who got her up at night and dinned her ears with crying all day. These girls, now — the young man in charge was being very attentive to them. They looked at him, not at the horse. Audrey looked at him, too. In a way, he was something like the horse. He was only moderately tall, but his shoulders were of great breadth, his chest deep. His neck, like that of the stallion, rose thick and powerful out of his shoulders, so lashed and bound with heavy muscles at its base that it was hard to say where sloping shoulder ended and the neck began its tapering toward his head. So small was his skull that there was something snakelike in the snap and whip of the neck as his head, close-capped with coarse black hair, darted from one girl to the other in their flippant conversation.

Audrey moved up to the stallion’s head and stood there staring up at him. She felt little. She thought of what the brute could do if he got ugly. There was only a futile little rope around the platform. She put back her head and looked up, her eyes fixed as if she were staring into space. There was something breathtaking, queerly satisfying, in being that close to so much living power.

The other people in the tent went out. Even the girls, having made or failed to make a date, left. Audrey did not know they were gone. In a kind of trance, her eyes were fixed on the smooth prominence of the stallion’s chest muscles. Suddenly he lowered his head. He sniffed at her hair, then shook himself and snorted. Audrey jumped back with a little scream.

‘He won’t hurt you, miss,’ said the young man. ‘He’s as gentle as a kitten.’

She turned around abruptly and looked at the man. He was sloppily dressed in a gauze undershirt and a pair of stained whipcord riding breeches. The gauze did not conceal his brown chest, rippled with muscles like wind-blown sand. The bright leather of his boots bulged on his legs. ‘He won’t hurt you,’ he said again, standing close to Audrey. He put his hand up to the muzzle of the horse, and the muscles flowed like snakes under his smooth skin.

Roy peered in the door of the little tent. He held Graham by the hand and coughed when he saw Audrey. ‘Why did n’t you come back?’ he demanded crossly. ‘I’ve looked everywhere for you. It’s time for the parade to start and I can’t take him with me.’ He coughed again asthmatically and thrust Graham at Audrey, then left on a run to get the Senator into the procession.

‘Oh,’ said the young man, ‘so you’re married.’

Audrey looked sullen.

‘That your kid?’

She nodded. She was suddenly ashamed of Graham, of his puny body with its scabs, of his lank hair and weak eyes.

‘Your old man got something in the show ? ’

Audrey brightened. ‘A Holstein bull. He took a blue ribbon.’

The man snickered. ‘Well, I reckon it’s the only blue ribbon there’s likely to be in the family. No one’s likely to hang one on the kid, there. Looks kinda sickly, don’t he? Like his old man.’

Audrey reddened and, snatching Graham’s hand, led him out of the tent. She carried him back to the Senator’s empty stall and sat there with him until Roy returned from the triumphal procession with the Senator in tow. She petted him more than she usually did and sat with one hand closed gently around his thin little leg. The child dozed and his mother studied him with thoughtful eyes. He did look exactly like Roy — the same overlarge head on the skinny neck, the same fretted expression.

‘Guess we’d better be hitting for home,’ said Roy.

It took him quite a while to get the truck and get the Senator loaded into it. It was just a small, pick-up truck, and the bull practically filled it. His tail hung out through the bars of the endgate. Audrey was standing by the door of the driver’s compartment when Roy came around from closing the endgate behind him. ‘Well, get in.’ He made no move to help the child, and Audrey swung the little boy up to the seat herself. Roy was looking at the oil, and she felt an impish impulse to swing an elbow into his ribs and see if she could bowl him over. He looked so rickety, bent over the mudguard of the truck that way. She’d swung Graham so easily to the high seat. She felt strong, much stronger than Roy. A new perception of the unused power of her own body tormented her. She wanted to do something with it. She wanted to kick up her heels or bunt something with her head in irritated excess of life.

They drove silently out of the grounds and down the highway. Roy chuckled. ‘I got an offer for the Senator — a thousand dollars.’

Audrey gasped. A thousand dollars! ‘Oh, Roy, we could have a now car instead of always riding in this old truck!’

‘Nope, got to build up the herd. Can’t sell the Senator yet for a couple of years.’

‘And have nothin’ in the meantime,’ she muttered.

‘We’ll have a real herd when we get through.’

‘But we need so many things. We’ve skimped so. The doctor says Graham had ought to have orange juice and things like that.’

Roy did n’t answer. Dusk was falling, and it was growing chilly. Graham began to whimper. Behind them the great bull rode in majestic placidity. Audrey hushed the child, but he continued to fret. ‘Here,’ said Roy, ‘see the pretty ribbon.’ Out of his coat pocket he fished the Senator’s satin ribbon, bright with gilt lettering. Graham took it and held it up to the front of his little suit. He wanted to wear it. His mother helped him. She fished in her purse and brought out a safety pin with which she fastened the ribbon to his suit. The boy smiled up at her, pleased with his adornment. From the brave glint of the ribbon lying across the bony little chest of her son the woman’s glance leaped to her husband, crouched in a ragged crescent over the steering wheel.

‘What are you snickerin’ about?’ he asked, peering at her through the dusk.

‘Nothin’,’ said Audrey, still snickering. She glanced behind her. Through the window she could see the white blur of the Senator’s chest. In a way, she was glad Roy had refused to sell the Senator. She liked having him around. It was pleasure to rest her eyes on him, a big creature, healthy and powerful, who took the good food that was fed him and turned it into a grandeur of bone and muscle, into proud head and mighty chest fit to display a blue ribbon rightly. She got tired of sickly creatures around her.


The truck pounded on through the night. Roy was in a hurry, and as they gathered speed the various rackets of the old car settled down into a rhythm of their own. After the heat of the day the coolness was welcome. Graham dozed, and Audrey slid him down into the seat between her and Roy, where he leaned against her and slept quietly. Roy himself yawned loudly. ‘Lord, I’m tired.’ Audrey said nothing. She was lost in a weariness that was the result not so much of actual fatigue as of an irritating suppression of activity. She half dozed, and disquieting scenes flitted through her mind — Roy, looking like a scarecrow against the Senator’s shoulder; the stallion; the smooth-muscled man who had laughed at Graham; and the blue ribbon. She kept seeing the blue ribbon — now on the Senator, now on the brown, rippled chest of the young man, and then, provokingly, on Graham’s little pigeon breast. At length she really slept, her head against the window.

She woke with a scream. The truck was flinging violently from one side of the road to the other. Clear before the headlights loomed the iron superstructure of a bridge, not on either side of them as it should have been, but directly ahead. The next instant there was a tremendous jolt, the crash of splintering glass. The truck lurched violently, stopped abruptly, and then began settling in a series of groaning jerks, heavily down on one side. Graham gave one small yelp of sheer terror and then clutched his mother’s thigh in silent panic. There was silence except for the ticking of strained parts of the settling truck.

‘Are — are you hurt?’ Roy asked tremulously.

‘No,’ Audrey replied savagely. ‘You went to sleep, that’s what you did, and hit the bridge. You might have killed us all.’

Roy did n’t answer her. He just kept on sitting there, stupidly.

‘Well, do something. We can’t stay here.’ Audrey was clutching the door handle to keep from sliding down on top of him.

Roy felt in the side pocket for a flashlight and turned it on. Right between the two of them was a long piece of iron, one of the rails from the bridge. It had pierced the windshield and gone out through the glass in the back of the cab.

‘Right between our heads,’ said Roy, awed. ‘It’s a wonder it didn’t hit Graham — it went right over him.1 Audrey was too cross yet to feel thankful. Roy seemed stunned by the spectacle of that rail, so neatly impaling their truck. He kept shaking his head. ‘Damn queer.’ The fright had set him to wheezing. His lungs dragged in the air, strangled on it, and let it go again in tearing coughs.

From behind them came a queer sound not unlike Roy’s cough. It brought Roy instantly out of his bemusement. He jerked open the door of the cab and tumbled down into the ditch, over which the truck leaned at a perilous angle. Audrey got out on the high side and pulled Graham after her to the road. Roy was already inside the truck with the Senator. She climbed up on the wheel to look. Framed in the wavering circle of the flashlight was the Senator, grotesquely crouched against the endgate. Somehow he had torn himself loose from the steel that, crashing through the cab, had entered his neck; but the great hole was there, and out of it the blood poured. It ran down under his feet and trickled slowly away beneath the endgate. Even as they looked, the bull’s eyes ceased to roll redly in the light; the neck, thick as a man’s body, could no longer support the great head. It came down and down, the horns still gleaming in their polish, to the floor.

‘Well,’ said Audrey, ‘there goes a thousand dollars.’ She climbed down and Roy slowly followed. Graham, unable to climb up, had gone around to the end of the truck. Now he emerged into the light, well smeared with blood. Audrey shook him, hard. ‘Just look at you now. Look at your clothes.’

Roy yelled at her, ‘ Shut up! ’ He stood there in the middle of the road. Audrey and the child stared at him. Minutes later, it seemed, he jumped up and down and yelled again, ‘Shut up, shut up, shut up!’ though no one had made a sound. Then he climbed into the truck once more and looked at the Senator. He could not bear it. With an oath, he pitched the flashlight into the ditch. Darkness wiped out the scene. The truck, the man and woman and the child, the dying bull, ceased to exist. It seemed to Audrey that the whole thing must have been one of those fleeting visions she had been having as she dozed off; that she would wake up and find the truck pounding homeward, Graham asleep beside her, and the Senator calm in the box behind them. But in the darkness she could hear Roy sobbing and swearing and making aimless short dashes here and there about the road.

From down the highway a car approached. Gradually its lights plucked the scene out of darkness, restoring it once more to reality, compelling them all back into existence. All except the Senator. He was beyond compulsion. And his ribbon shone bravely on the cramped chest of the child, who stood, now reedily wailing, full in the approaching glare of headlights.

Audrey reached out an arm and jerked him to the side of the road. Roy was around on the far side of the truck, now. She could hear him wheezing and crying, and both sounds angered her. Her fingers snatched at the ribbon pinned to the child’s suit and she jerked it off, tearing a hole in his blouse. ‘That’s the Senator’s,’ she said. ‘You got no right to wear it.’ She shook the sobbing child again.

A car stopped beside them and a voice asked, ‘Had an accident here?’ No one answered, and the voice went on, ‘Do you need help, lady? Have you got a man with you?’

Suddenly Audrey felt like crying herself.

‘No,’ she answered. ‘Just a dead bull.’